Although Spain founded a Foreign Tercio in 1920 imitating the French Foreign Legion, later renamed Spanish Legion, there were some years in which France transferred theirs to the Spanish government. That curious episode took place in 1835 and the cause was to participate under the Spanish flag in the First Carlist War defending the liberal regime embodied by Queen Isabella II. Six thousand men, under the command of Marshal Joseph Bernelle, fought for three years until the official dissolution was decreed in 1838, which in Spain was known as the French Auxiliary Division.

That seminal Carlist War was the result of the succession crisis that arose after the death of King Ferdinand VII in 1833. The king had designated his daughter Isabel as heir, which presented a double problem: on one hand, she was barely three years old, which required establishing a regency in the person of her mother, Maria Christina, whom the absolutist sectors considered manipulated by the liberals; on the other hand, Isabella was a girl, which clashed with the Salic Law, which gave preference to males, and therefore the late sovereign’s brother, Carlos María Isidro, claimed his right to the throne.

To be precise, it was not exactly a Salic law because this was foreign to Spanish tradition, and the Cortes of Castile rejected it when it was presented to them by Philip V of Bourbon in 1712. It was a Fundamental Succession Law established by that monarch after winning the War of Succession against the Habsburg candidate with the idea of blocking a possible return of that dynasty through marriage. Decades later, with the Bourbons fully established on the throne of Spain, Charles IV abolished it.

However, the final step was missing; the Cortes that were supposed to endorse that decision were never convened for fear that they would lead to a revolutionary process like that of France in 1792, and this, combined with Fernando VII’s difficulty in procreating—he did not succeed until the last years of his life—led him to designate his brother as heir. And he did not resign himself to being relegated when Isabella was finally born. As long as the king lived, he restrained himself, but as soon as he was gone, he proclaimed himself successor and the civil war began.

Due to his involvement in a subversive plot, Carlos María Isidro was exiled in Portugal, welcomed by the absolutist Miguel de Braganza. He reigned after overthrowing his niece Maria in 1828, and it was in Portugal where the Spanish launched his Abrantes Manifesto. The Portuguese, like the Spaniards, had polarized into two irreconcilable factions: on one side the absolutists, traditionalists, supporters of the total power of the monarch, who grouped around Carlism; on the other side the liberals, who were in favor of a constitutional monarchy and were known as cristinos or isabelinos by the respective names of the regent queen and her daughter.

The international context supported the latter; times had changed since the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna that led to the creation of a European Holy Alliance defending absolutism. In France, one of its members, the fall of Charles X had given way to the so-called Monarchie de Juillet headed by Louis Philippe of Orleans, who needed to ensure that the French absolutists did not receive support from Spain, which is why he aligned with the United Kingdom in defense of a new liberal regime for the country. When Maria II regained the Portuguese throne in 1834, she joined these three nations to form the Quadruple Alliance.

The outbreak of war in Spain led to this alliance agreeing to send reinforcements to Regent Maria Christina, and thus the British Auxiliary Legion and the Portuguese Auxiliary Division arrived. The French allocated six of the seven battalions that formed the Foreign Legion to this mission, founded in 1831 to face colonial wars, especially in Algeria. The custom was for each of them to be formed with volunteers of the same origin (although with French officers), and the 4th was a whole idea because it was the most suitable to serve in Spain as it was made up of Spaniards.

Formalities required the body to be disbanded first in France and then transferred to the neighboring country through an agreement signed in June 1835. The soldiers traveled with their equipment and maintained their salaries, which the Spanish government assumed, while the transfer from Algiers and Oran was carried out by French ships. The officers were not obliged to accept that mission, and the French could choose not to go, but at the cost of losing the rank they had achieved in the Legion (to avoid this, incentives and promotions were promised), while foreigners would be dismissed without compensation.

In the end, 123 officers accepted. 4,021 men initially joined, later supplemented by other personnel, bringing the total number to around 5,000, although we will see later that there were more. All were under the command of Joseph Bernelle, a veteran of Waterloo and other Napoleonic campaigns who was a colonel of the Legion in Algeria and was promoted to general for the occasion, although the Madrid government appointed him a field marshal, renaming the unit the French Auxiliary Division and incorporating it into the Spanish Army.

They landed in Tarragona in mid-August, after stopping in Palma de Mallorca. Bernelle was not in favor of segregating the troops by nationality, so the first thing he did was to mix the soldiers, although maintaining French as the common language of the Division. It was a quite varied group, characteristic of the idiosyncrasy of the Foreign Legion, which included Swiss, Italians, Germans, Poles, ex-Bonapartists, Bourbon supporters, democrats, constitutionalists, nobles, criminals, deserters…

Some already knew Spain, either because they were born there or because they had taken part in the intervention of 1823 that ended the Liberal Triennium—the Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis—but all had extensive military experience. The Carlists nicknamed them the Algerians, due to their origin; however, the nickname given by the Spanish clergy, the child-eaters, was more amusing, given that they served the hated liberalism and also did not have a particularly exemplary behavior (among other things, they drank excessively – common in the military world of that time – and jokingly declared themselves worshippers of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, a display of paganism that was another reason for repulsion for the religious).

We mentioned that the number of soldiers increased; to about 6,000 specifically. This was, in part, thanks to the contribution of those popularly known as Isabella II’s volunteers or Suarce’s legion, referring to their leader, Baron Suarce. He was a French colonel who had commanded a body of French volunteers in Portugal—sent to aid Maria II—and who agreed with the Spanish ambassador in Paris to recruit a couple of battalions to collaborate with the liberal regime in its fight against the Carlists.

All those who had not been able to enlist in the French Auxiliary Division joined him, coming to Spain from Pau and establishing their camp in Jaca, alongside the legionnaires, in mid-September. The organization was so disastrous that, lacking salary and provisions, the volunteers ended up rebelling. The tense situation was resolved by expelling the five ringleaders and dissolving the corps, three-quarters of whom returned to France and the remaining members, 264 men, joined the Auxiliary Division.

Everything was ready for Bernelle’s people to enter the fray. The initial idea was to send them to the heart of Carlism, Navarre and the Basque provinces, after the government’s request to Paris to mobilize an army to occupy that area temporarily failed, just as it had happened with the aforementioned Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis. The French understood that this time they did not have the support they had then (most of the clergy and the rural world, an absolutist nursery that received them well in 1823, was now the enemy) and preferred not to risk intervening officially.

In the end, the legionnaires were diverted to Lleida to block the passage of the expedition led by Juan Antonio Guergué and Yániz, the Carlist commander general of Aragon and Catalonia. They were divided into two columns of three battalions each, the first under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Conrad (not to be confused with the homonymous writer) and the second under Bernelle himself. Conrad was an Alsatian Frenchman, born in Strasbourg, and a career military man; he already knew Spain from having been stationed there during the Napoleonic invasion first (he was wounded in the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro) and in 1823 afterwards.

Except for four companies that collaborated in the siege of the fort of Guimerá, forcing its surrender (and where they carried out an ugly repression against the local population, shooting dozens of collaborating neighbors with Carlism), the legionnaires were distributed among the various garrisons to reinforce them, something that Bernelle did not like because of the effect that the measure could have on discipline, as he knew that the Carlists were trying to attract many legionnaires to their side. He eventually managed to regroup and transfer the Division to Aragon.

The new mission was to defend the Aragonese border with Catalonia against a possible Carlist attack from the latter. Reinforced with Suarce’s troops, they faced Guergué’s column, which was returning to Navarre after a triumphant march that the Isabelinos had not been able to stop. The Division did manage to prevent them from seizing any city in the region, exacerbating one of Carlism’s great failures: being confined to the rural world unable to seize any important city, something demanded by European banks to grant it financing.

In January 1836, some of the legionnaires reached Vitoria and contributed to the victory in the Battle of Arlabán, which was short-lived because they soon had to abandon the conquered positions. It was then that a serious confrontation between Bernelle and Conrad occurred because the latter demanded to be able to perform the functions of his rank as colonel, which the former tended to accumulate in his person. The superiors sided with their chief and Conrad resigned, returning to France to recruit more troops.

However, that summer things turned around and Bernelle, sick, asked for relief. Conrad not only regained his position but was promoted to brigadier and took command alongside Lebau. There were rumors that the cause of the disagreement was the interest that Tharsile Bazin, Bernelle’s young wife, showed toward the most handsome officers, especially Commander Horain, and her husband’s insistence on keeping her by his side even though she had set up a kind of court around her. It should be noted in this regard that she was nicknamed the generala among other even more revealing nicknames, such as the princess of Larrasoaña (referring to the town where the marshal had established his headquarters) or Isabella III, princess of Navarre, queen of the Legion.

But, illness aside, part of the retirement was due to the discontent with Bernelle, whose work was controversial: he applied brutal discipline with physical punishments, appointed officers to his relatives—up to five, including two sons and a cousin—and on top of that, he equipped himself with a personal escort of bearded sappers, Napoleonic style. In addition, his persistent insistence on asking for more and more money to reinforce the unit, in his aspiration to turn it into a full-fledged regiment, ended up clashing with the Spanish government and causing his departure, returning to Algeria.

Conrad returned in August with another battalion. Initially, it was going to be another division, which meant about 6,000 more men, but in the end, they were retained and sent to Algeria due to an unexpected turn in Spanish politics: the uprising of part of the Royal Guard—the so-called Sergeant’s Mutiny—in August 1836 resulted in the fall of the moderate (conservative) government and the rise of the progressive alongside the reinstatement of the Constitution of 1812. In addition, the Carlist general Miguel Gómez Damas undertook an expedition through Isabelino territory, all of which seemed to threaten the stability of the regime.

However, the addition of these reinforcements to Bernelle’s work—effective militarily, poor administratively—made the Division more than respectable. They now had artillery (six mountain guns and as many howitzers) and cavalry (including two squadrons of lancers), as well as a field ambulance. Operating so close to the French border, they were supplied from there, so they were well-equipped and all that, combined with the fierceness they showed in battle, allowed them to achieve some minor victories.

That aggressive spirit was not due solely to training but also to the need for survival, as the First Carlist War was a fierce and bloody conflict in which no prisoners were taken and even civilians of the opposing side were shot. That situation did not relax a bit until the British intervened between both sides, getting them to sign the Eliot Convention in April 1835—named after the appointed mediator—to exchange their respective captives instead of executing them (not always by shooting; on occasion, it was done by bayoneting).

The problem was that the Carlists did not grant foreigners the status of combatants (in the same way that the Isabelinos did not apply what was agreed to the Carlists captured outside Navarre and the Basque provinces), so they excluded them from the application of the convention and executed them as soon as they captured them, sometimes with previous torture to extract information. This prompted the legionnaires to do the same to them, not to mention that in battle, they fought to the death, aware that it was the destiny that awaited them anyway. A second negotiation was necessary to extend the convention to all participants.

However, not everything turned out as positively as one might have hoped. The government was continuously late in payments, which affected the morale of the troops, who were without salaries, provisions, or equipment, so desertions increased at a time when the Division had been sent to Pamplona. It was then that the first substitute for Benelle, Colonel Lebau, resigned, leaving Conrad in charge of the unit. He himself was tempted by the Carlists to change sides and lead the Algerian Battalion, which had been formed with the numerous deserters from the Legionnaires, although he rejected the offer despite rumors that the only reason keeping him in Spain was to collect the arrears owed to him.

His first concern was to obtain provisions to feed the soldiers, so he focused on making small incursions for that purpose. Then, to get money to pay them, he asked for ransoms for prisoners. Even so, three hundred men left the Division each month between defections and discharges, leaving the number of troops at 4,000, which forced the restructuring of the seven battalions into just three. Shortly afterward, they were reduced to two, plus a couple of squadrons of lancers and an artillery battery, which did not prove decisive in the operations leading up to the battle of Oriamendi.

The prospects were not promising. In mid-May 1837, pretender Carlos María Isidro began the so-called Royal Expedition, which aimed to take Madrid by crossing Aragon and Catalonia to gather reinforcements on the way to his fifteen battalions and a thousand horsemen. In practice, only General Ramón Cabrera’s army joined him, but Isabelino troops were scattered and unaware of the enemy’s route, so they were unable to stop their advance. The most they could do was send a contingent in pursuit, made up of a cavalry brigade, General Antonio van Halen’s division, and Conrad’s two battalions.

The Carlists defeated them in Huesca, and Conrad had to join General Oraá’s army, which again clashed with the enemy in Barbastro; ironically, facing the legionnaires were his former comrades, now integrated into the Algerian Battalion, which did not prevent the fight from being ruthless. The Carlists prevailed, forcing the others to retreat in disarray. Conrad tried to stop them and counterattack by wielding his hat with the tip of a saber, but that only drew the attention of enemy sharpshooters, who fatally wounded him in the head.

The casualties left the French Foreign Division reduced to a single battalion, about 800 soldiers under the command of Captain François Achille Bazaine, who soon gave way to Lieutenant Colonel Cros d’Avena. The Royal Expedition failed to take Madrid with the imminent arrival at forced marches of an army led by General Espartero. But the situation was critical for the Foreign Division; on June 10, the British Auxiliary Legion was dissolved, and it did not seem that the French Division would have a better future, especially after several officers requested to return to their country; their own chief was one of them, and in August, he passed the baton to Lieutenant Colonel Ferrary, whose first obstacle was to assist—without intervening—in the mutiny of the Spanish soldiers of General Pedro Sarsfield, whom they killed because they were also without pay or supplies.

Despite lacking Conrad’s charisma, Ferrary managed to maintain discipline and intervened in the dismantling of a new uprising, this time occurring in Jaca. But by the beginning of 1838, only two companies remained, whose most noteworthy work was to raise funds for a suitable tomb for their former leader; after all, he had left such a great memory that his two sons were sponsored by the heir apparent, Ferdinand Philippe of Orleans. It was a nice ending because, at the end of the year, the Spanish government decided to put an end to the diminished presence of the French Foreign Division in Spain.

As feared, its members (63 officers and 159 soldiers) returned to their country having barely received a quarter of what was owed to them. Some went into civilian life, others re-enlisted in the Foreign Legion—along with many exiled Carlists—and others in the Army, losing, yes, the promotions obtained in the Spanish adventure. In the spring of 1839, the last remaining legionnaires, the artillerymen, left. Meanwhile, the war would still continue for more than a year, until the Vergara Convention caused the Carlists to throw in the towel and the pretender saw his dream of reigning vanish.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 8, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cuando Francia traspasó la Legión Extranjera a España


Emilio Condado Madera, La intervención francesa en España, 1835-1839 | Román Oyarzun, Historia del carlismo | Paul Azan, La Légion étrangère en Espagne, 1835-1839 | Douglas Porch, The French Foreign Legion | Martin Windrow y Gerry & Sam Embleton (ilust.), French Foreign Legion 1831-71 | Wikipedia

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